China movie quota lawyerWhat a wild ride it’s been for the Chinese film industry! Until July 27, it had been a year of one depressing story after another. Downward-trending box office, high-flying entertainment companies imploding, deals to purchase foreign assets falling through, the biggest movie studio on the planet sold to a real estate developer, the can’t miss co-production The Great Wall tanking. Even the Transformers franchise couldn’t save the day, with the latest installment performing well below expectations in China.

But on July 27, the action film Wolf Warrior 2 opened, and within 12 days of its release it had already become the highest-grossing film of all time in China. As of this writing the film has pulled in more than $720 million in China alone. The narratives are almost writing themselves, with pundits trying to explain why Chinese people are going in droves to see a jingoistic film about a Chinese special forces operative in Africa.

I’m not going to wade into those waters except to note William Goldman’s aphorism that when it comes to the film business, “Nobody knows anything.” The phenomenal success of Wolf Warrior 2 was anything but a foregone conclusion. The first movie was a surprise hit, earning about $89 million, but it’s not like people were lining up Episode 1-style for a sequel. Back in May, Wolf Warrior 2 was pilloried online when it came to light that its trailer had lifted footage from X-Men: First Class. Moreover, Wolf Warrior 2 was released on the same date as the government-backed propaganda film The Founding of an Army, and the latter was allotted the lion’s share of screens.

This movie – this particular movie – couldn’t have come at a better time for China. Hollywood is in the midst of negotiating the terms of foreign (read: Hollywood) films’ market access to China. American studios find China’s protectionism exasperating on multiple levels, with the biggest complaints being (1) the quota system, which only allows 34 foreign films (largely US studio films) each year on a revenue-sharing basis (2) the low percentage of receipts allotted to the foreign studio (currently 25%) for such revenue-sharing films, and (3) the foreign studio’s inability to control the release date. The last point is more serious than might immediately be apparent – not only does the Chinese government determine when each film will be released (via a largely opaque process), it also imposes unofficial blackouts during which no new foreign films are allowed to be released.

Aside from discussions about WTO obligations and fair play, US studios’ best argument for expanding access to the Chinese film market has been an economic one: Chinese audiences want to see American movies (and don’t particularly want to see Chinese movies), and with thousands of new screens every year, Chinese movie theaters need movies people want to see. In other words, limiting the number of American movies hurts the Chinese economy.

Setting aside the fallacy that the Chinese government’s interests are aligned with those of Chinese theater owners, the success of Wolf Warrior 2 upends all of those arguments. Wolf Warrior 2 was released on the first day of a blackout period, and it is already the most successful movie in Chinese history. It is a Chinese-made movie, with purely (even exclusively) Chinese content, and Chinese theaters are raking in the money – and not having to send any of it overseas. The Chinese government will likely infer that Wolf Warrior 2’s success is not in spite of their protectionist policies, but because of them. And President Trump’s saber-rattling about a trade war isn’t likely to improve their attitude.

I certainly hope the U.S. negotiating team is able to make some headway, but U.S. studios and production companies shouldn’t assume anything. They need a backup plan, and right now the best one seems to be investing in and otherwise creating productions in China solely for the Chinese market. A number of studios and production companies are already going down this road, and I think it’s the smart play. Better to be an investor in the next Wolf Warrior than to be shut out completely.

China Due DiligenceLast week the news broke that Dalian Wanda, the powerful Chinese real estate developer and entertainment company, was selling off its half-built movie studio, a massive complex under construction near Qingdao.

It was the latest in a string of bad news days for Wanda, most of which have been precipitated by the Chinese government’s increasingly strict controls on outbound investment. Wanda’s $1B purchase of Dick Clark Productions fell through in March of this year. The chairman/CEO and the head of China operations of Legendary Entertainment, the film production company that Wanda bought in 2016 for $3.5B, both left this year and have yet to be replaced. Legendary’s recent films (with the exception of Kong: Skull Island) have tanked everywhere but China. Wanda quietly withdrew its attempt to fold Legendary into its existing film operations and list the reformulated company on a Chinese stock exchange. Wanda announced an ignominious sale of its theme parks less than a year after announcing Wanda was going to clean Disney’s clock.

And looming over it all, the Chinese government has made it clear – in increasingly public fashion – that Wanda’s ability to borrow money will be highly constrained.

Both Legendary and Wanda’s subsidiary AMC Theaters issued public statements in the past week that they were not dependent on Wanda for funding; the Western markets were not impressed.

No doubt many people in Hollywood are engaging in a bit of schadenfreude right now. Wang Jianlin, the founder and chairman of Wanda, is a bit like the LaVar Ball of Chinese entertainment (albeit with $30 billion more to his name). He was brash, but plenty of people wanted to do a deal with him when he had assets to burn and was talking about taking a stake in every major studio. Now they’re not sure what to think.

I don’t feel any joy at Wanda’s apparent retreat from the movie business, if that is in fact what’s happening. Yes, they’ve had substantial setbacks and remain highly leveraged, but Wanda is still a huge company and a major player in real estate development, which has always been its core business. It controls more movie screens than any other company in the world, and it still has a sizable film production division. Wang is a shrewd businessman and not to be underestimated. You don’t get to be the richest man in China without having a lot on the ball. Everyone thought he had overpaid for AMC Cinemas but the company has more than doubled in value since he bought it.

But Wanda’s proposed studio in Qingdao never made much sense to me. I lived in Qingdao, and it is a wonderful city. But it has scant connection with the Chinese film industry, and little to recommend it as the site of the world’s largest studio. Wanda promised moviemaking on a grand scale, including enormous soundstages, multiple backlots, and a 40% subsidy for anyone making a movie there. But the reality on the ground never seemed to match the rhetoric, and few (if any) filmmakers not associated with Wanda or Legendary have filmed there.

What was the reality on the ground in Qingdao, anyway? My colleague Steve Dickinson (who spent nearly a decade in Qingdao) and I could never figure it out. The studio complex is almost an hour’s drive south of the city proper, with nothing of note in between but for a few factories. When we visited the site a few years ago, you would never have known that a huge film studio was being built. It just seemed like a pure real estate play: swarms of agents descended on anyone who got close, thrusting brochures for as-yet unbuilt apartment towers. Tour buses stopped by regularly and disgorged passengers who had no knowledge of, or interest in, the studio. And this was well after the glitzy announcement with Nicole Kidman, Leonardo DiCaprio, and John Travolta in Qingdao.

The Qingdao studio complex is now being sold to Sunac, another Chinese developer. Will the studio be completed by Sunac? Was it ever going to be completed? Who knows? Wanda certainly had the money to build it, and Wang loves movies. The ultrawealthy have a long history of bankrolling films, from Howard Hughes up to Megan Ellison. Perhaps this is just a strategic retrenchment. Wanda’s strategy with the Qingdao studio complex wasn’t much different from that of many Hollywood players: if you can’t sell the steak, sell the sizzle.

The recent headlines characterize Wanda’s troubles as if they were the result of poor business judgment. I don’t think that’s fair. This story isn’t about Wanda. It’s really a story about China’s reluctance to let foreign entertainment companies compete in a free market. Just look at what’s happening in Chinese movie theaters right now. A foreign movie blackout is in place, and the screens are being inundated with The Founding of an Army, directed by Hong Kong legend Andrew Lau (Infernal Affairs, which Martin Scorsese remade as The Departed) and starring a cavalcade of Chinese stars both young and old. If history is any guide, The Founding of an Army is guaranteed to do big business at the China box office, regardless of how many people actually see it. For the previous two movies in this series (The Founding of a Nation and The Founding of a Party), state-owned enterprises bought vast blocks of tickets for their employees.

One takeaway from all of this is that foreign entertainment companies (and even just foreign companies in general) need to be more careful than ever when dealing with Chinese counterparties. If the Chinese government interferes directly there’s little you can do, but up to that point you can do a lot to protect yourself. Just look at all the lawsuits being filed in Los Angeles against Chinese production companies – lawsuits which may be doomed to failure, because even if the plaintiff wins, the judgment won’t be enforceable in China.

Conduct due diligence. Make sure your contracts are written in Chinese and enforceable under Chinese law. Get an upfront payment so you can be sure the Chinese side can actually pay under the contract. And if something sounds too good to be true (like the 40% subsidy for filming in Qingdao), it probably is.

China CopyrightWhen I was growing up, I watched a lot of television. A LOT. I was a latchkey kid and every day after school my brother and I would come home and turn on KTVU and watch TV Powww! and Captain Cosmic shows like Ultraman. Ultraman, if you don’t know (Philistine!), was a Japanese science-fiction show that ran from 1966-67 but, much like Star Trek, circulated widely in reruns (leading to numerous remakes, spinoffs and movies) and had an outsize influence on subsequent sci-fi pop culture.

So when I read last week’s China Film Insider story about an allegedly unauthorized Ultraman film being produced in China, it felt like a personal insult. A Chinese fan-created Ultraman movie a la Axanar would be amazing, but the producer of this film, Chinese film company Blue Arc Animation, is just making a blatant ripoff.

Or are they?

Japanese company Tsuburaya Productions Co. Ltd., the creator of Ultraman, alleges that Blue Arc Animation has no right to make an Ultraman film in China. But Blue Arc contends that they got the rights from UM Corporation, another Japanese company. And UM Corporation contends that they own all foreign rights based on an alleged 1976 agreement in which Tsuburaya’s president Noboru Tsuburaya granted to Thai filmmaker Sompote Saengduenchai the exclusive, perpetual foreign rights to Ultraman. Sompote’s rights were then assigned to his son Perasit Saengduenchai, who in turn transferred them to UM Corporation, who in turn has licensed the rights to a number of companies all over the world.

Tsuburuya has consistently held that the 1976 agreement is a forgery, not least because Sompote didn’t even mention the existence of such an agreement until 1995, after Noboru Tsuburaya had passed away. The dispute has led to a number of lawsuits between Tsuburuya on the one hand, and Sompote and his successors in interest on the other. Back in the mid 2000s, Tsuburuya won several victories in Thai and Japanese courts, which seemed to bring things to a close, but not so much. The victories were only partial victories, and the key piece of evidence in Sompote’s favor is that the 1976 agreement, despite having a number of inaccuracies and other indicia of inauthenticity, was nonetheless chopped with Tsuburuya’s company seal. And so the litigation has continued. Most recently, UM Corporation sued Tsuburuya in a Los Angeles federal court on May 19, 2015, alleging copyright infringement, breach of contract, and intentional interference with contractual relations. I just checked the docket and the case, staffed by a number of big-firm LA litigators, is still going strong.

What does all this have to do with China? First of all, this should be a wakeup call for anyone with a Chinese entity who thinks they don’t need to know where their company seal is at all times.

Second, it’s an example of how NOT to license copyrighted content in China. What sort of due diligence did Blue Arc Animation conduct regarding the rights they were allegedly getting from UM Corporation? We have conducted due diligence on numerous film projects in China and our efforts have saved more than one high-profile project from guaranteed litigation over the source material.

Chinese courts are getting better and better about enforcing copyrights. The dispute between Tsuburuya and Blue Arc Animation hasn’t resulted in a lawsuit in China – yet – but Blue Arc Animation has to be wondering what, exactly they have gotten themselves into. Are the Ultraman copyrights registered in China under either their name or the name of UM Corporation? Do they have a licensing agreement with UM Corporation written in Chinese and enforceable under Chinese law? Is the licensing agreement registered with the Copyright Protection Centre of China? Unless the answer to all of these questions is “yes,” Blue Arc Animation will be hard pressed to prove that they have any rights at all. (And meanwhile, if Tsuburuya hasn’t already registered all relevant copyrights for Ultraman in China, shame on them.)

If you’re going to spend millions of dollars on a film project (or even just tens of thousands, as may be the case here), don’t buy a pig in a poke.

China copyright lawI spoke in Beijing last week at a conference on legal protection of sports broadcasts, organized by the National Copyright Administration of China (NCAC) and the United States Patent and Trademark Office. Other speakers included Chinese judges, Chinese and American lawyers and academics, sports league and broadcaster general counsel, and American and European IP officials. What follows is based on the speech I gave at the conference.

Copyright in sports broadcasts is not explicitly recognized in China by statute, though it has been recognized in some Chinese copyright cases. One of the ongoing debates in China copyright circles is whether explicit statutory recognition ought be given to copyright in sports broadcasts. Any such recognition would involve introducing a new class of copyright subject matter or the expansion of an existing class.

The introduction or expansion of a class of copyright subject matter is often rationalized as limiting free riding and providing an incentive to invest. In the absence of a clear sports broadcast copyright in China, one might therefore expect to find at least some evidence of market failure. However, a quick look at the business of broadcasting certain sports in China indicates a strong market — perhaps even a bubble.

Consider, for instance, Chinese Super League matches. China broadcast rights are, I understand, currently held by an associate of China Media Capital for a five-year term ending in 2021. Rights for the first two years were reportedly acquired for 300 million USD. Rights for years three, four and five were reportedly acquired for a total of one billion USD. In an indication this was a good deal for the head-licensee, Le TV committed to paying 414 million USD for a two-year sub-license, though Le TV subsequently defaulted and, as I understand it, the rights now lie with online TV service PPTV.

Now consider English Premier League matches. China broadcast rights are, I understand, currently held by Super Sports for a six-year term ending in 2020. These rights were reportedly acquired for 65 million USD. Note that this figure represents an assessment of market value made in 2013. For the three years commencing in 2020, PPTV has reportedly bid 700 million USD. This makes China the Premier League’s largest foreign broadcast market.

If these deals are any indication, the market is apparently already behaving as though sports broadcasts are protectable. But there is no proprietary foundation for this protection. The present foundation is contractual. The organizer of the game, a sports league, is the source of all rights in the game. The sports league relies on the “economics of exclusion” — the ability to monetize by controlling access to a sporting venue, in much the same way a theatrical exhibitor of a motion picture controls access to a movie theatre. In some cases, and in some courts, copyright protection has been recognized in China but a consistent jurisprudence has not emerged. The more readily available legal means of protection involve anti-unfair competition laws or the use of administrative or even criminal sanctions. Chinese tort laws and “related rights” laws are also invoked by rights holders when they fight piracy. Whatever the actual or potential legal redress for piracy may be, in assessing the applicable law in China it must be appreciated that a sports broadcast is always a special type of broadcast presenting unique challenges.

What makes sports broadcasts special is that the viewer wants to watch a game as it is played at the venue from which the broadcast is being made. The replay or the highlights are not as valuable as the live feed. The threat posed by illegal downloads after a game concludes is minimal. From a technical perspective, a live broadcast of any kind involves the compression of pre-production and post-production into a seamless and immediate production. That production, and the broadcasting of it, must occur simultaneously. Incidentally, sports leagues report that the advent of hand-held live streaming technology is not a major threat to their businesses because the quality of the stream lacks the production values of a professional broadcast.

The unique challenge of a sports broadcast is that satisfactory relief from a pirated version must be swift. It must be pre-emptive (in advance of the game) or instantaneous (well before the game ends and, ideally, within the first quarter hour). In either case, only urgent injunctive relief can ever be entirely satisfactory. Non-urgent preliminary injunctive relief will not solve the problem, and damages and accounts of profits are insufficient remedies.

Even if sports broadcasts are accorded clear and consistent protection under Chinese copyright law, it is fair to say that uniform urgent injunctive relief (as opposed to preliminary injunctive relief) is still largely beyond the capacity of the Chinese legal system. Therefore, the recognition of copyright in a sports broadcast would not, of itself, solve the underlying need for urgent relief. Still, China’s legal system in its present form does allow rights-holders to tackle repeat offenders, and the large Chinese platforms are already mostly respectful of broadcast rights anyway. In many ways, the real challenges are presented by the smaller, and often ephemeral, pirate sites. Even if these pirate sites can be identified and located, the people behind them nearly always lack substantial assets and are therefore rarely worth pursuing. To be effective in the present environment a sports league (or its local partner) needs a team of Chinese-qualified in-house litigators who understand the piracy landscape and are capable of engaging in guerrilla warfare using technological as well as legal or administrative means.

Despite the existence of these other means, despite evidence pointing to a strong market, and despite the inherent limitations of an action for copyright infringement in China, there is little doubt that explicit statutory recognition of sports broadcast copyright would provide greater certainty and support greater market efficiency. This is especially so if this statutory recognition were given to a broad-based, technology-neutral right embracing traditional broadcasting as well as streaming.

Industry stakeholders are not resisting the recognition of such a sports broadcast copyright. There is apparently a broad consensus among broadcasters and sports leagues on the issue. There is apparently no division between foreign and Chinese interests on this point either. Nor is a sports game sensitive — it is not subject to the kind of censorship, quotas, and approvals processes applicable to motion picture or episodic content. Nonetheless, there is ongoing resistance to the recognition of copyright in sports broadcasts. Resistance has arisen, I understand, because recognition of copyright in sports broadcasts would require the NCAC to change its understanding of the meaning of a copyright “work” and the applicable standards of “originality.” Absent market failure this issue is perhaps not viewed as a major priority. Whatever the reason, until the NCAC resolves this and other current issues it cannot present a coherent solution to the State Council Legislative Affairs Office (SCLAO). The SCLAO is therefore not in a position to recommend final legislation to the National Peoples Congress. The discussion has been bogged down for nearly a decade. All the while, the sports broadcasting industry is getting further and further ahead of the law.

As an important source of or influence on China’s copyright law, the Berne Convention, with its focus on works and authorship, provides a frame of reference for a consideration of the underlying problem in China. China became a party to the Berne Convention in 1992. Berne sets a number of minimum standards applicable to works and authors. A broadcast right is among those rights that must be recognized as exclusive rights of authorization. Authors enjoy the exclusive right of authorizing the broadcasting of their works.

China’s current copyright law has been in effect since 2010. It too applies to “works,” which include, among other things, works of literature, art, natural sciences, social sciences, engineering and technology, which are created in certain “forms.” With the exception of computer software, these forms are limited to specific kinds of works enumerated in the law. The sixth form in the list is “cinematographic works and works created by a process analogous to cinematography.” The ninth and final form in the list is “other works as provided for in laws and administrative regulations.” The rights comprising copyright in these works include the broadcast right. China also recognizes related, neighboring or “small” rights in other subject matter including video recordings. The protection given to these other subject matter is lower than that given to works. The standard of originality expected of a video recording is much lower than that applicable to cinematographic works.

In China, the sports broadcast copyright controversy arises for two reasons. First, because a game of sport is not generally seen as a “work,” so there is no broadcast of a work when a game is broadcast. Second, because even if it is accepted (as it is in the United States) that a broadcast always requires the simultaneous making of a recording, any such recording is insufficiently original to be regarded as a cinematographic work. There is little disagreement on the first reason. The real debate is about the second reason. The competing considerations on this point have been ventilated in the leading Chinese cases. Basically, the debate boils down to whether modern-day live broadcasts, with their professional directors, multi-camera units and advanced editing techniques, are producing content sufficiently original to qualify as a copyright work. It seems obvious to anyone with even a basic understanding of the production process that sports broadcasts are a form of entertainment every bit as sophisticated and entertaining as motion picture or episodic content, the originality of which is already recognized in China.

It will be seen, then, that the minimum standards of Berne, as reflected in Chinese copyright law concerning “works,” are at risk of becoming impediments to the recognition or creation of other copyright subject matter. There is an opportunity here for China to go its own way over and above minimum standards.

Other nations have, of course, gone their own ways and I want to mention two that have found instructive solutions to the problem of “works”: The United States and Australia. Both are obviously common law countries. There are many others, including civil law countries. Incidentally, as a last resort, those who oppose grafting common law principles to the Chinese legal context are fond of saying that German law is the proper source of Chinese copyright law and German law is inconsistent with the common law point of view on the points at issue. The trouble is that claims of this kind are generally made without a German copyright lawyer on hand to clarify the point. A German copyright expert would obviously make a welcome addition to future panels dealing with this issue.

The United States became a party to Berne in 1989. US copyright law is concerned with protecting “original works of authorship.” The recognized works include motion pictures and other audiovisual works. In US jurisprudence, sports games are not “authored” in the relevant sense so they are not “works.” Even so, sports broadcasts in the United States are entitled to copyright protection. The key to their protection is that the broadcasting of a game is understood as always involving the “fixing” of an audiovisual work, and the fact that this fixing occurs simultaneously with a transmission does not matter. This elegant solution was applied in 1976 and obviously did not prevent the US from later joining the Berne Convention.

Australia became a party to Berne in 1928. Australian copyright law is concerned with protecting “works” and “subject matter other than works.” The scope of protection for subject matter other than works is lower than that for traditional works, but this has not stopped them being treated as full copyright subject matter. Subject matter other than works include sound recordings, cinematograph films, and broadcasts. Copyright in a television broadcast is the exclusive right to make a cinematograph film or sound recording and to re-broadcast or communicate to the public otherwise than by re-broadcasting. The maker of the broadcast is the copyright owner. In Australia, copyright protection applies to the signal itself. There is no need to stretch the definition of “work” to include a broadcast. There is no need for the broadcast to contain a work.

These two examples demonstrate how a nation can recognize a certain type of copyright without compromising the minimum standards of Berne or being strangled by a debate about originality standards.

The sports broadcast problem could be solved in China if broadcasts were recognized as involving the fixing of a cinematographic work, of a work created by a process analogous to cinematography, or even of a video recording. Alternatively, some form of recognition could arise within the existing category of “other” works or through the mooted inclusion of a new general category of “audiovisual” works. These solutions would involve minimal disruption to China’s existing copyright system. All they would require would be an acknowledgement that a modern sports broadcasts satisfies a minimum standard of originality. It would not be necessary for a game of sport to be deemed a copyright work. Ultimately, though, these solutions would need to embrace a broad-based, technology-neutral definition of broadcast and they would need to depend on continued improvement in the availability and efficacy of urgent injunctive relief for copyright infringement.

China CopyrightsOn Friday June 23, in collaboration with the National Copyright Administration of China, the United States Patent and Trademark Office will be putting on a one-day conference on legal protections for sports broadcasts. This event will take place at the Novotel Beijing Peace Hotel and run from 9:00 a.m. until 5:00 p.m. that day.

There is no charge to attend.

The leader of our China entertainment group, Mathew Alderson, will be speaking at this event. This event will explore the different ways countries protect the creative content of live events, with a particular focus on broadcasts of sporting events. As China continues to develop amendments to its Copyright Law, now is an opportune time for an in-depth discussion in this area.

The program will bring together US, Chinese, and European government officials, academic leaders, and industry representatives to discuss the importance of providing legal protection for sports broadcast programs, including the role of copyright protection, how sports broadcasts are currently protected in China, the United States, and the European Union, and international perspectives on the subject. Go here for more information on the event and here for more information on how to register or can just contact Ms. LIU Jia and provide her with the following registration information:

1. Your full name
2. Your organization
3. Your full position / title
4. Your email address

Hope to see you there.

China Entertainment LawThe leader of our China entertainment group, Mathew Alderson, will be speaking on a panel at Peking University School of Law on June 21st. The panel is entitled “Looking Beyond: Opportunities and Challenges.” It will be part of the 2nd Annual China-US Entertainment Law Conference, presented by Peking University School of Law, the US Patent and Trademark Office, Loyola Law School Los Angeles, and the Beijing Film Academy. Mathew’s panel will be one of four dealing with current issues in China film, TV, gaming and music. These issues include fair use of live game streaming, copyright protection of live broadcasts, music licensing issues, protection of celebrity names, risk management, and talent agency contract dispute resolution.

The titles of the other three panels are:

  • Year in Review — Recent Developments in the China-US Entertainment Industry
  • IP Issues in the China-US Film, TV, Music and Gaming Industries
  • Other Issues in the Film, TV, Music and Gaming Industries

This is a major event for which the organizers have assembled a great cast of Chinese and foreign experts. For further details see this flyer: US China Entertainment Law Conference.

Go to this link to register.

We hope to see you there.

China defamation lawMaking a biopic – a biographical movie about real people– is complicated. And one of the biggest concerns is liability for defamation. In an ideal world, filmmakers would get everyone depicted in the movie to sign a release. But that’s often impractical: people want too much money, too much control over how they are depicted, or both. And that assumes filmmakers can even find the people in question. It’s understandable; nobody wants to see the embarrassing things they’ve done memorialized onscreen. But a movie without conflict isn’t much of a movie.

In the United States, filmmakers have two main legal tools at their disposal when countering allegations of defamation. First, the truth is a defense to defamation. Even if Ike Turner didn’t like how he was depicted in What’s Love Got To Do With It, that he did in fact beat his wife insulated the filmmakers from liability. Second, you can’t defame someone who is dead. Which (in part) explains The Brittany Murphy Story and many of the other biopics on Lifetime.

But in China, the law on defamation is markedly different. Truth is not a defense, and you can defame someone even if they’re dead. That can (and does) have a chilling effect on biopics in China.

Chinese defamation law is not specifically spelled out as such, but has been developed from Articles 101 and 102 of the General Principles of the Civil Law (enacted in 1987), and several subsequent supporting documents: the Supreme People’s Court’s Answers to Certain Issues Concerning Trials of Cases Involving the Right to Reputation (released in 1993), Understanding and Application of the 1993 AnswersInterpretation of Certain Issues Concerning Trials of Cases Involving the Right to Reputation (released in 1998), and Understanding and Application of the 1998 Interpretation.

As explained in the 1993 Answers, defamation exists if (i) the defendant has committed an illegal act, (ii) the plaintiff’s reputation has been damaged, and (iii) the illegal act caused the damage. Such defamation exists in three circumstances:

  1. Written or oral insults or libel that damage a person’s reputation;
  2. Unauthorized disclosure of personal information that damages a person’s reputation; or
  3. A news report containing “gross error” that damages a person’s reputation.

In Understanding and Application of the 1993 Answers, the SPC clarified that truth was NOT a defense to defamation. If a work insults and damages a person’s reputation, it is defamatory regardless of whether it is true.

The 1993 Answers state that either the allegedly defamed person or their close relatives (defined as spouses, parents, children, siblings, grandparents, and grandchildren) have standing to sue. That rules out almost anyone alive from 1950 onward as a character that can be included without fear of liability.

To be sure, the difficulty in securing effective injunctive relief in China does not create the same sense of urgency to get releases as in the United States. But the existence of the defamation laws, along with the often heavy hand of the Chinese government overseeing content, no doubt explains why so many biopics in China are either hagiographies or set in ancient times. Why take the risk of depicting real people unless the Chinese government has specifically asked you to do so?

Perhaps emboldened by the not particularly artist-friendly laws, a recent lawsuit attempted to extend the protection against defamation to an absurd conclusion. A woman with the same name as a character referenced in Feng Xiaogang’s 2016 movie I Am Not Madame Bovary sued the filmmakers for defamation, alleging that her reputation and health had suffered because a character with her name was described as a slatternly woman of low morals. The character in question, Pan Jinlian, isn’t even in the movie per se – she’s a femme fatale from the classic Chinese novel, Water Margin, who is merely mentioned as a counterpoint to the film’s lead character. This would be like someone named Mata Hari suing a film that mentioned the World War I temptress/spy. If Ms. Pan has a complaint against anyone, it’s her parents for naming her after the character in the novel.

It’s one of the more ridiculous arguments I’ve heard, but at the same time it’s oddly encouraging for two reasons. First, it’s encouraging because the case was dismissed quickly; the judge noted that the character in the movie refers to the character in the book, not to anyone in China that happens to have the same name. Second, it’s encouraging to see that people in China feel confident enough in their legal system to bring a lawsuit when they have been aggrieved, even for something as nonsensical as this.

But if the characterization had been a little closer to the truth, the outcome might have been different.

Another recent Chinese movie, Dearest, was based on a true story about a couple whose child was kidnapped. The woman who was the basis for the lead character alleged the movie made things up about her life and suggested she was unchaste. She threatened to sue for defamation, but the director managed to resolve the dispute with a personal apology. It’s not always going to be that simple.

Even if a movie is not considered defamatory in the United States, it still might be considered defamatory in China. And the Chinese distributor/exhibitor would be held liable. As the Chinese media market continues to grow, and as the Chinese court system continues to gain strength and credibility, I wouldn’t be surprised to see many more defamation lawsuits in China, especially as US studios launch more partnerships with Chinese film companies to create Chinese-language content for the local market.

The bottom line for filmmakers is that getting releases has become all but mandatory. Especially for movies likely to be shown in China.

China copyright law

Okay, maybe not spectacular. But definitely real.

An article in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, How a Plague on the Movie and Music Industries Became Their Chief Protector in China: Chinese search giant Baidu’s transition to creator and buyer of content has changed its priorities, sums up the change that is happening with China IP protection and enforcement:

Chinese search giant Baidu Inc. BIDU 3.47% was once a scourge of Hollywood and the U.S. music industry, which accused it of being a pipeline for pirated content.

Today when Baidu is involved in a copyright infringement case, chances are it is the one casting the blame.

Baidu’s about-face in the copyright fight reflects its emergence as a creator and buyer of content, a transition that continued recently when the company struck a deal to license original shows from Netflix Inc. NFLX 0.85% Other Chinese media companies are undergoing similar transformations, upending how entertainment is protected in the world’s second-largest economy, legal analysts say.

This article quotes Mathew Alderson, our lead China media and entertainment lawyer on how intellectual property protection in China is moving from something that was formerly done to make foreign companies and governments happy to something China now sees as economically important.

“One of the old rationales for copyright protection…is that it provides an incentive to invest. We are seeing that in play here in China,” said Mathew Alderson, a partner and entertainment lawyer at Harris Bricken in Beijing. “Copyright is no longer something imposed on China by the U.S. It is now a tool in Chinese hands.”

The Wall Street Journal notes that in the last ten years China’s courts have seen a 15-fold increase in copyright-related lawsuits:

One way to measure the change is by the escalating flood of lawsuits aimed at protecting intellectual property.

Nearly 87,000 copyright-related cases were filed in China last year, according to data compiled by China’s Supreme People’s Court, a 15-fold increase from 2006. These cases include claims of illegal distribution, or unauthorized reproduction, of written content, videogames, movies and TV shows.

And here’s the point that stems from this massive increase in copyright lawsuits in China: the companies that are bringing these lawsuits are not doing so for their health. They are spending time and money on these lawsuits because they believe that the economic rewards from doing so will be greater than their costs. They have rationally decided that China’s enforcement of its copyright laws warrants this conclusion.

All this is leading to big changes in how Hollywood and Western TV studios are handling their content these days, with most of them choosing to license their content to Chinese companies (like Baidu and Tencent), rather than work at getting that content into China on their own:

For Hollywood studios, striking deals with Chinese partners is much easier than trying to defend their copyrighted content on their own, said Eric Priest, a University of Oregon School of Law professor who researches copyrights and the Chinese entertainment industry.

“If you’re a content producer with an office in Hollywood, you aren’t going to be familiar with where Chinese netizens are getting unlicensed content,” Mr. Priest said. “You won’t be familiar with the shadowy set-top manufacturers who are installing apps that people buy that allow direct access to unlicensed content. You’re going to be much better off with a partner in China that can do that.”

 

Also just last week, a Beijing court awarded Tencent more than US $1 million in damages in a copyright infringement case. The defendant in the case was Baofeng Technology, a high-profile streaming site and manufacturer of VR hardware. Baofeng has been found liable for copyright infringement numerous times previously (including for unauthorized distribution of films, television, and the most recent World Cup), but that’s surely in part because it’s so visible. After its 2015 IPO on the Shenzhen exchange, Baofeng soared to a valuation of more than US$8 billion, and although its current valuation is closer to US$1 billion, it is a real company, with real assets.

In the case decided last week, Baofeng was found to have streamed the first 6 episodes of season 3 of The Voice of China without permission from Tencent, which had licensed exclusive streaming rights. The Voice of China (or whatever name it’s going by these days) is one of the most popular programs in China and it generates significant revenue for all of the companies involved with it. Tencent wanted to protect its investment.

Tencent’s victory in the litigation regarding The Voice of China is of a piece with other recent lawsuits regarding enforcement of motion picture copyrights in China, including Disney’s victory over a film that ripped off the anthropomorphic vehicles from Cars, decisions holding private cinema operators liable for exhibiting content without permission, and the recent controversy and lawsuit regarding Wolf Warrior 2. Copyright owners in China no longer have to just grin and bear it.

I hate to say we told you so on this, but we told you so on this. Way back in early 2013, in China Intellectual Property Law. A Radio Interview For World Intellectual Property Rights Day, Dan Harris of my firm predicted that this day would come and explained why:

China is a lot better compared to ten years ago. I think very little of that has to do with the WTO. I think that China is better because China is getting wealthier, and because Chinese companies are starting to care more about IP. I am of the view that countries start doing well with IP when its own powerful companies really start caring about it. And I’ve seen this progression happen in Japan, I’ve seen this progression happen in Korea, I’ve read about how this progression happened in the United States. The reality is nobody is going to be able to force China to improve its IP from the outside, but big companies within China like Haier, like Huawei, like Lenovo — companies that care about their own IP — are going to be able to force China to improve. That’s what’s happening. And as more big companies come to the fore in China, China’s IP is going to continue to improve. And there’s not much that can be done to rush it. In fact, if anything China’s IP is improving nicely. Meaning, it’s improving at least as fast as Korea’s did, at least as fast as Japan’s did, and probably as fast as the US’s did, but the US was a long time ago.

In other words, China — like pretty much most countries, is a lot more likely to do what it perceives to be in its own self interest than to do something just because other countries are telling it that it should/must.

Granted, the legal principles in these cases are straightforward and from what I’ve seen, the facts patterns leave little room for interpretation. When the defendants explain why they weren’t infringing the copyright, they tend to sound like Vanilla Ice explaining why “Ice Ice Baby” wasn’t a blatant copy of “Under Pressure.” (I can’t wait to see who will be the Chinese Robin Thicke and state that they couldn’t possibly be liable for copyright infringement because they were drunk on baijiu throughout production.)

The point is not that Chinese courts are establishing new rights, but that they are enforcing the rights that already exist for copyright owners – and doing so in a meaningful way. Both Chinese and foreign copyright owners are turning to Chinese courts to enforce their rights, and are prevailing. At least with the easy cases.

In future posts, I will discuss what you can and should do to protect and enforce your copyrights in China.

China copyrights works for hireOver the past several years, an increasing amount of creative work has been outsourced to China: everything from special effects for movies to programming for video games to architectural designs for transit-oriented developments. These creative works are protected by copyright, but not always in a way companies expect. And because so much work in China occurs without a legally enforceable contract, once companies realize their IP portfolio is not nearly as robust as they thought, it’s often too late to do anything about it.

As a general rule, the creator of an original work (e.g., a song, movie, or video game) owns the copyright in that work. This is true in the United States and in China and in most every other country in the world. The main exception to the general rule is for “works for hire,” which are works commissioned and paid for by a third party. But this is not a clear-cut exception: it depends on the facts, and it depends on which country you’re in.

In the United States, a company will own the copyright to a “work for hire” by an employee if the work was made within the scope of that employee’s employment. A company will own the copyright to a “work for hire” by an independent contractor if the work was specially ordered or commissioned for use via a signed agreement that specifically states that the work is a work for hire and such work falls into one of nine statutorily defined categories (including motion pictures, translations, tests, and instructional texts). Many commissioned works (e.g., photography, software, and product design) do not fall into one of the statutory categories, and for those the company will need to have a signed contract that explicitly assigns the copyright. Even in the absence of a signed agreement, the company can argue that it has an implied license, but that’s not a great position to be in.

In China, the presumptions are somewhat different. China’s Copyright Law states that an employee will own the copyright to anything they create during the course of employment, except for engineering designs, product designs, maps, and computer software, and other works created mainly with the employer’s resources. For all other works, the employer essentially has a two-year exclusive license to use the copyrighted material, and thereafter a non-exclusive license. If an employer (a WFOE, say) wants to impose a different requirement on its employees, it needs specific language in a signed contract with the employee that assigns all rights in any “work for hire” to the employer. That contract should be in Chinese and governed by Chinese law, and it should be signed at the beginning of employment.

For “independent contractors” (whether individuals or entities), the contractor will own the copyright unless there is a specific agreement between the parties in which the contractor agrees to assign the copyright to the commissioning entity. And yes, this contract ought to be in Chinese and governed by Chinese law also.

This all sounds reasonably straightforward but a vast number of entities – including huge multinationals – still operate in China without proper agreements with their employees, let alone their “independent contractors.” These companies are essentially operating on the honor system, and sooner or later they’re going to pay by losing valuable rights.

china content licensing agreementsIn Netflix finally finds a way into China, CNN’s Sherisse Pham explains how “six months after admitting defeat in its bid to crack China, Netflix has found a way to tap into the vast market.” To summarize, Netflix for years was trying to set itself up in China, so as to be available to viewers in China, just as it is available in “over 190 countries.” To quote from Netflix’s own site, “Netflix is not yet available in China, though the company continues to explore options for providing the service. It also is not available in Crimea, North Korea, or Syria due to U.S. government restrictions on American companies.” Netflix is not available in China because China tightly regulates foreign content and foreign publishing. No surprise there, right?

So how did Netflix manage to all of a sudden make its way into China? By licensing its content to China.

And that makes total sense.

Both here on the blog and in real life with our clients, our China lawyers are always touting the benefits of licensing products, intellectual property, brands, technology and content to China. Licensing deals make sense under many circumstances, but they make particular sense in situations where it is difficult or impossible to get your “widget” into China any other way. In other words, it makes particular sense for content. And because of that, much of my law firm’s China media and entertainment work involves drafting content licensing agreements for written, visual and audio content for magazine and newspaper and book publishers and for television and movie producers and studios. Just by way of an example, virtually all of the China-language editions of foreign magazine titles you see in China are there via licensing. In the typical magazine licensing deals we do, our client, a US or European magazine publisher, will license its magazine’s name and a certain amount of content (to be translated into Chinese) to a Chinese publishing house. Our movie and television and gaming deals are not substantively much different.

In A China IP Reality Check, Part 3, we explained what is typically necessary for a China content licensing agreement to work:

As a preliminary matter — before you license anything to anyone in China — you should register, in China, any of your intellectual property worth litigating over. That means registering not only your English-language trademarks but also the Chinese-language versions of those trademarks. If the Chinese-language versions don’t exist, it’s time to create them. That also means registering copyrights for any meaningful content. For television shows, that means at the very least registering the show bible, scripts, and any produced episodes. It’s true that China is a signatory to the Berne Convention and therefore a valid copyright in the US or Europe is valid in China without registration, but for practical purposes, it’s much easier to enforce a copyright in China if you have registered it in China.

Do not delegate the task of registering your IP in China to your Chinese licensee. The licensee’s interests may not always be aligned with yours.

Once you have registered your IP in China, you should draft an enforceable contract to protect your interests in China as against the Chinese licensee. A contract with the licensee’s Hong Kong affiliate, with disputes resolved by arbitration in Hong Kong (or any other country other than Mainland China), achieves none of these goals. Yet this is what we see again and again from companies who either don’t trust or don’t understand the Chinese court system. The problem is usually not that Chinese law won’t protect foreign content owners. The problem is usually that content owners (and their lawyers) often decline to take advantage of the protection Chinese law offers. They write contracts designed to be unenforceable in China, and then complain about China’s legal system when their contracts prove to be worthless.

A properly drafted China content licensing agreement should address the following issues:

1. Make sure the contracting party on the licensee side is the actual Chinese entity that will be licensing the content, and not a Hong Kong affiliate. As a corollary, choose the right law and the right jurisdiction for your dispute. If you want to sue a Chinese company for breaching your contract by using your IP in China, choose Chinese law and dispute resolution via Chinese courts in the hometown of the Chinese licensee. See China Contracts: Make Them Enforceable Or Don’t Bother and China Contracts. Watching The Jurisdictional Sausage Get Made.

The issue with contracting with a Hong Kong company is not so much that the Hong Kong company may be a shell company with no assets (although that is often the case). Rather, the issue is that any legal resolution in Hong Kong is unlikely to be effective in China. And if you’re licensing content to China, China is where the action is going to be. Hong Kong still has the common law system passed down from its days as a British colony; it favors injunctive relief and disfavors liquidated damages (aka contract damages). China is the opposite. What good is injunctive relief in Hong Kong if you’re trying to get the judgment enforced in China, which disfavors injunctions? You might argue: we will arbitrate in Hong Kong but provide that Chinese law governs. For a variety of reasons that almost never works, particularly if the defendant is a Hong Kong company. Meanwhile, the infringement in China continues.

2. Provide for upfront payment of the license fee in an amount that makes the deal worth it to you even if the contract is terminated early. See China Licensing Agreements: The Extreme Basics. Provide for substantial contract damages for late or non-payment of the license fee, and do not provide the Chinese side with any of your content until it has paid the license fee and the funds are in your bank account.

3. Provide for substantial contract damages for (1) early termination and (2) each instance of infringement. Do not mess around with lengthy provisions about injunctive relief. Unlike the common law systems of the United States, Canada, Great Britain and Australia, contract damages are not disfavored under Chinese law. In fact, use of contract damages is well established in China and favored by statute. On the other hand, though Chinese judges may be legally empowered to issue injunctive orders, they have virtually no power to ensure those injunctions are implemented. There is no Chinese equivalent of the U.S. Marshals Service. For this reason, Chinese judges are hesitant to issue an order they know is likely to be ignored. Instead, they will seek to convert every decision to an order to pay a sum certain in damages. Including a contract damages provision gives a China judge the roadmap. Most importantly, since Chinese companies know well the power of contract damages provisions, your merely having one in your contract greatly increases the odds of your Chinese counter-party abiding by that contract.

4. The contract damage amounts must be a good faith estimate of the actual amount of income that would be lost by the licensor in the event of early termination. These amounts are not guaranteed even if the plaintiff prevails: at trial, the defendant can argue that the contract damage amount is too high and the plaintiff can argue that the amount is too low. The utility of contract damages is that when a plaintiff seeks pre-judgment attachment of assets China’s courts will almost always allow attachment in an amount equal to contract damages if such damage amount is specified in the contract. In contrast, if the contract provides for injunctive relief and monetary damages in an amount to be determined at trial, it is virtually impossible to obtain a writ of attachment. To repeat: Chinese companies do not like putting their assets at risk of being seized and so having a contract damages provision is a great deterrent to that company breaching your China content licensing agreement.

Note also that an arbitration body cannot issue an enforceable assets seizure order and it is also virtually impossible to obtain such a order from a court outside the district where the assets are located. That is why we normally want to sue in the “home town” of the defendant, even though that sounds counter-intuitive to a most U.S. and European lawyers, who have been taught to avoid getting “home-towned.” The Chinese understand the “home town” issue, which is why there is an automatic right of appeal to a higher court in a different town, and also why such appeals are de novo. Home town favoritism is often reversed at the higher court level.

5. Do not rely on the default provisions of Chinese intellectual property law to protect you against your licensee. Chinese IP law and your IP registrations protect against random third-party infringement. If you want protection against your licensee stealing your IP, put it into the contract. Your contract with your licensee is your best chance to control your Chinese licensee and to protect yourself. Take advantage of it by using a contract that actually achieves those things.

6. The license term should be relatively long; say, five years. If the term is too short, then the penalty for early termination becomes irrelevant.

If your Chinese counter-party refuses to sign a contract that addresses the above, you know what they have in mind and you should reconsider whether to do the deal.

For more on China licensing contracts, check out China Licensing Agreements: The Extreme Basics and Nine Tips for China Licensing.